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Assisted Living vs. Memory Care: 5 Key Differences

20 minute readLast updated August 31, 2023
fact checkedon August 31, 2023
Written by Merritt Whitley, senior living writer and editor
Reviewed by Niki Gewirtz, senior living expertNiki Gewirtz is a senior new hire support specialist with A Place for Mom and has advised families for more than 20 years.
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If you’re looking for long-term care for an aging loved one, you’re probably learning that senior living varies greatly in terms of levels of care, amenities, staff training, and cost. And if your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, you have another decision ahead of you: general assisted living or specialized memory care? Many factors can affect this decision, including your loved one’s current abilities, your family’s budget, and the community’s staff. Before you decide between assisted living or memory care, it’s important to learn about the unique benefits each offers.

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Understand the difference between assisted living and memory care

Memory care and assisted living both provide housing, meals, and help with activities of daily living (ADLs), like bathing and toileting. However, memory care — with increased safety measures, specially trained staff, cognitive therapies, and more — also offers a specialized environment for people with dementia.

It’s normal to wonder about your loved one’s care needs, whether they have a dementia diagnosis or you’re simply noticing a change in their cognitive abilities. About 70% of adults older than 65 will need long-term care, [01] and many will have some type of cognitive decline or memory loss.

Maureen Bradley gained valuable experience working in assisted living communities and as a memory care director before joining A Place for Mom. She explains the overlap between assisted living and memory care.

“The average age in assisted living these days is around 85, and that age group makes up nearly three-quarters of the people who have dementia. What this means is that it’s very common for people in assisted living communities to be in the early stages of dementia,” says Bradley.

As you consider communities, there are five key areas where general assisted living and memory care differ.

1. Safety

General assisted living communities may offer safety features like in-room emergency alert systems and daily check-ins. For seniors with memory loss, increased safety is a major concern, as wandering, aggression, and falls are common and dangerous dementia behaviors.

To help keep residents safe, memory care communities often have security features such as:

  • Locked entrances and exits
  • Keypad entries
  • Obscured exits
  • Doorbells that signal entering and exiting

To reduce anxiety and avoid injuries from falls, facility layouts include design elements that minimize confusion. Plus, memory care communities offer calming therapies within soothing spaces to reduce agitation and confusion that may lead to aggression or self-injury.

2. Staff training and care

Staff members at both assisted living and memory care facilities have experience supporting residents with day-to-day tasks. But staff at memory care facilities are well-equipped and specially trained to provide person-centered care around the clock. This helps seniors with dementia maintain cognitive skills, a sense of self, and quality of life for as long as possible.

“Memory care communities tend to have a much higher caregiver-to-resident ratio. This is important because it can take longer to provide ADL care, and people in memory care often need more direct oversight for safety and social engagement,” says Bradley.

Caregivers at memory care facilities also know how to effectively and compassionately prevent and manage difficult dementia behaviors, such as wandering and aggression. They understand the balance of encouraging residents to stay as independent as possible while providing the support they need.

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3. Amenities

Amenities vary greatly from one community to the next, but most assisted living communities offer the following:

  • Gyms
  • Beauty salons and barber shops
  • Outdoor spaces like gardens or courtyards
  • Pet-friendly accommodations
  • Transportation services
  • Library, TV, and game rooms
  • Arts and crafts studios
  • Spas or relaxation rooms

Memory care communities often feature many of these same amenities, but you’ll also find unique layouts and design features to help orient residents and reduce confusion. For instance, design elements in memory care communities may include the following:

  • Clearly defined common areas
  • Color-coded walls to make it easier for residents with memory loss to find their way
  • Outdoor gardens to prevent residents from feeling trapped or confined
  • Increased opportunities for personalization, like memory boxes outside of residents’ doors to guide and help them feel at home

4. Activities and therapies

Assisted living staff organize activities for active seniors who may need some help with everyday tasks. With this demographic in mind, assisted living offers plenty of social opportunities. A wide range of planned activities are scheduled to appeal to different interests. These activities may include:

  • Exercise classes
  • Book clubs
  • Games
  • Parties
  • Karaoke
  • Outings

Memory care offers both group and individual memory care activities and therapies designed specifically for seniors with memory loss.

“There’s focus on structure, sensory stimulation, getting direct sunlight whenever possible, and cultivating engagement. All of these things minimize or even eliminate sundowning, help with sleep patterns, and allow residents to enjoy their days,” Bradley says.

Many memory care facilities provide activities tailored to residents’ interests and programs that encompass the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of health.

Some of the specialized therapies available at memory care communities may include the following:

  • Music therapy, which promotes relaxation and reduces agitation in seniors with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia
  • Art therapy, which may help slow cognitive decline
  • Reminiscence therapy, which uses senses like smell, taste, touch, and sight to help seniors remember people, events, and places
  • Pet therapy for companionship

5. Costs

Many factors affect the costs of assisted living and memory care, including the following:

  • Location
  • Room size
  • Whether a space is shared with a roommate
  • What services are provided

Beyond this, costs are calculated a little differently for each care type.

Generalized assisted living communities typically charge a base monthly rate that covers the following:

  • Room and board with three meals a day and snacks
  • Most activities (outings may cost extra)
  • Housekeeping and laundry
  • Transportation to and from medical appointments

Help with ADLs may be an additional charge, depending on how much assistance a resident needs.

Across A Place for Mom’s partner communities, the nationwide median price of a one-bedroom apartment in an assisted living community is $4,995 per month.[02] The cost of memory care tends to be higher, with a median monthly cost of $6,200 per month for a one-bedroom apartment across our partner communities.[02]

Memory care communities are more expensive because they offer specialized care and services that general assisted living communities typically don’t offer.

Assisted living vs. memory care: What services are offered?

This chart summarizes the key differences in services offered at assisted living and memory care communities.

ServicesAssisted LivingMemory Care
Help with ADLsxx
Meal servicexx
Medication managementxx
Care coordinationxx
Housekeeping and laundry servicesxx
Exercise classesxx
Transportation to appointmentsxx
Specialized care for dementia and memory lossx
24-hour care and supervisionxx
Secured entrances and exits to prevent wanderingx
Memory-enhanced therapiesx
High staff-to-resident ratiox
Unique layouts to reduce confusionx

How to decide between assisted living and memory care

Bradley encourages families to be mindful of their loved one’s prognosis as they consider the main differences between assisted living and memory care.

“It helps to understand the kind of dementia your loved one has and how quickly it is expected to progress,” says Bradley.

Some seniors in the middle stages of dementia may begin to need a higher level of supervision. For others, this happens a little later. It’s best to include input from your loved one’s doctors or other caregivers when making a decision.

Choosing assisted living

Assisted living may be a good fit for your loved one if memory loss isn’t an immediate concern or if they’re in the early stages of dementia. Sometimes it may also be a good fit for seniors experiencing the middle stages of dementia, provided that they don’t wander.

“Assisted living communities can be very helpful with things that matter during the early- and mid-stages of dementia, such as managing medications and helping with reminders for showering, meal times, and the like,” Bradley says.

If you’re unsure about how advanced your loved one’s dementia is, you may want to speak with their doctor to determine if they’re showing signs it might be time for memory care.

Choosing memory care

As dementia progresses and symptoms worsen, many families do opt for memory care.

“Oftentimes, safety is the driving factor for deciding it’s time to make the switch to memory care,” says Bradley. “If their loved one is prone to going for walks and getting lost, for example, assisted living is no longer an option. They may also start doing things like trying to drink their shampoo or get restless later in the day.”

In addition to a memory care facility’s built-in security features, the 24-hour oversight provided by staff in a memory care community can significantly add to a senior’s safety.

Memory care in assisted living: A Promising third option

Some assisted living communities also offer advanced memory care units on-site, so that both care types are available within the same community. This can be a good long-term care option for seniors.

“This is the ideal situation,” says Bradley. “It’s much less traumatic for the person living with dementia to simply change rooms or locations in the same community. They know the staff, recognize the surroundings, and oftentimes there’s intermingling for activities and events. They can still see their friends.”

On the other hand, moving from one community to a completely new one may require more thoughtfulness from family members to help ensure that the move goes smoothly.

“As dementia progresses, moving someone can be very hard on them and even trigger a big decline in condition,” says Bradley.

Memory care units within an assisted living community usually provide 24-hour supervised care in a separate wing or floor of a residential community, along with all the therapies and amenities of memory care. So, a senior with early-stage dementia may be able to move to a general assisted living residence first and then transition to the memory care level later, if needed.

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Next steps as you consider memory care

When you’re weighing options, it’s important to remember that each community is unique and what’s available to you will vary depending on your loved one’s location and budget.

“I would strongly encourage families to check out a number of care settings,” says Bradley. “In some places, memory care may have advanced-stage dementia residents and look like a skilled nursing setting. Other memory care communities have more active, vibrant populations. There’s a wide variety of culture and care approaches, including specialized neighborhoods and the Montessori model.”

According to Bradley, this might be the most important part of the process.

“Finding the right fit for your loved one can make all the difference when it comes to quality of life for Mom or Dad and satisfaction for the rest of the family.”

If you’re looking for options in your area, A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors can help by considering your loved one’s lifestyle, budget, and abilities to make the right recommendations — all at no cost to your family.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, February). How much care will you need?

  2. A Place for Mom. (2022). A Place for Mom proprietary data.

Meet the Author
Merritt Whitley, senior living writer and editor

Merritt Whitley writes and edits content for A Place for Mom, specializing in senior health, memory care, and lifestyle articles. With eight years of experience writing for senior audiences, Merritt has managed multiple print publications, social media channels, and blogs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.

Edited by

Marlena Gates

Reviewed by

Niki Gewirtz, senior living expert

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